Speed Development for Distance Runners: How to Run Faster in Long Races
For many runners, long-distance races (i.e. half and full marathons) offer a new and distinct set of rewards and challenges than the typical 5k or 10k. Besides requiring higher mileage training and weekend long runs, long races are approached with a sense of pride and accomplishment that cannot be replicated any other way.
Additionally, long races have a surprising benefit over short ones: it is substantially easier to run a personal best. For instance, running just one second per mile faster in a marathon results in a 26 second personal record, while the same increase in speed in a 5k results in only a three second PR. Since marathons are run at a significantly slower pace, dropping minutes from a marathon PR is a common occurrence.
What are strategies runners can use to improve their speed over long distances?
I asked myself this question when I started training for the Vienna Marathon taking place on April 10, 2016. How do I maintain a fast pace for 26 miles?
The simple answer to running faster during a long race is to improve the body’s aerobic efficiency, as well as the body’s comfort level at faster speeds. However, the complicated answer is that there are two types of runners: those who are fast at shorter distances but struggle in long distance races because of poor endurance; and those who are slower at the shorter distances but have great endurance. I’m in the latter group, with a 10k PB of just 41 minutes.
However, for each runner, speed development should be approached in a different manner.
Incorporate long tempo runs into weekly workouts
When endurance is a problem, such as for those runners who specialized in middle distance races in high school or college but then moved up to longer races as they aged, there are a number of strategies for speed development. The first is to incorporate long tempo runs into weekly workouts. If training for a half marathon, a 4 – 6 mile tempo run at race pace or slightly faster can drastically improve the body’s ability to endure a faster pace for a sustained amount of time. If training for a marathon, 8 – 10 mile tempos at race pace are sufficient.
In both cases, the goal is to make goal pace feel as comfortable as possible.
Enhance “muscle memory”
For runners who struggle with endurance, especially at the end of the race, building workouts into long runs can be beneficial. Working the aerobic system on tired legs helps the body develop “muscle memory”, which can keep legs moving quickly at the end of a race. A sample long run workout is a progression run, where each mile of the run is 5 – 10 seconds faster than the previous mile. Alternatively, a good way to improve turnover late in the race is to finish the final 15 minutes of a long run “up-tempo,” roughly 10 – 20 seconds slower than race pace. Including 6 – 8 x 100 m strides at the end of a long run is also a good strategy for improving the body’s ability to run faster during a long race.
The classic: Increase weekly mileage
Perhaps one of the most important changes an otherwise speedy runner who lacks endurance can make is increasing weekly mileage. Especially when training for a marathon, additional weekly mileage and time spent on one’s feet can result in major benefits for the runner. Besides developing a better cardiovascular system, running economy tends to improve when more miles are run, which can lead to faster times. As the aerobic base builds, muscles become more efficient at recruiting and utilizing oxygen, which in turn improves endurance and leads to the ability to sustain a quicker pace for a longer period of time.
For runners who already have well developed endurance, the trick to improving half or full marathon times is to develop speed. Although it may seem counterintuitive, a seasoned marathon runner can greatly improve his or her times by developing better 5k or 10k speed. The trick here is that by becoming comfortable with a pace much faster than intended for long race, actual race pace will feel easier, which will in turn lead to large drops in time. For the runner who has already developed the ability to run all day at a steady pace, working on speed will be less comfortable, and this is precisely the reason the training is necessary.
To improve 10k speed, shorter interval sessions should be incorporated into weekly workouts. A great workout for the marathoner looking to improve speed is called “cruise intervals.” During an 8 – 12 mile run, the runner should run the first 1200 m of every mile at his or her normal run pace, but then run the final 400 m at 10k pace. This pattern is repeated during every mile. This workout can be repeated every other week with the hard portion ranging from 200 – 400 m in length. When running 200 m cruise intervals, the hard portion should be run at 5k pace. A second sample workout is the “Kenyan Fartlek.” This workout helps to build speed while also testing endurance. After a two mile warm up, run for 30:00 while alternating 2:00 at 10k pace and 1:00 easy. Although this workout is tough, it is great for building leg speed in distance runners.
Fartlek means ‘speed play’ in Swedish. My version of fartlek consists of running 5 to 10 miles with a powerful 100-meter sprint every 500 meters.
Exercise based on your muscles type
An important consideration for runners wishing to become faster at longer distances is the type of muscles
they predominantly have. For the runner with a lot of endurance but little speed, slow twitch muscles likely predominate over fast twitch muscles. While there is no proven way to increase the number of fast twitch fibers a person has, there are ways to improve their ability. One way is by working on explosive strength, such as by doing Tabata style circuits. These circuits (which are named after a Japanese exercise scientist) have been shown to improve anaerobic capacity and VO2 max, both of which will produce a faster runner. To begin, choose any activity, such as spinning, rowing, jumping rope, etc., and alternate performing the activity at 100% effort for 20 seconds with 10 seconds of rest. Continue this cycle seven more times, until 4:00 have been completed.
To reinforce the speed that is developed by both Tabata style workouts and short speed sessions, shorter races should be run during the runner’s half or full marathon training. Approach the races as a workout, and “train through” them by following the same routine as would be completed the day before a normal long run or speed session. The pre-race nerves will help the runner achieve a faster time than would have been run during a workout while providing the added benefit of additional race experience.
Change your shoes
Improving your personal best in a half marathon, marathon or ultra marathon requires great equipment. While races over 50k, especially on trails or on the mountain will take much more than a few energy gels and some water, one thing is clear: comfortable running shoes are a must.
If you’re looking to enhance your speed for a race that’ll take place on the road, a glance at Airia’s shoes won’t hurt. I’ve been using these shoes for the last two years and even beat my half marathon PB by four minutes (from 1:43 to 1:39) two months after receiving them.
Now, I’m not trying to advertise anything, but a closer look at your current running shoes (comfort, cushion, weight) will make you understand that such details are important.
Learn how to pace effectively
One of the most useful improvements you can make as a runner in order to achieve faster finishing times, a more beneficial workout, and more comfortable training is to master the art of pacing. A common mistake among runners of all ages is to run too fast in the first mile or kilometer of a race, only to be slowed down to a near walk towards the finish.
You can either invest in a metronome to help your brain ‘learn’ how to get you into a rhythm, or look for an app that syncs running and pace – for starters. Mastering the art of pacing can help you tackle distances that you have never dreamed of. Teaching your body which is the balance between effort and comfort and aiming for that exact pace that will take you to the finish like should be your primary goal.
Seconds matter, so ditch the GPS, hit the treadmill or find a pace group. Why is pacing important when all you’re looking for is to develop your speed? As I said earlier, you have to get extremely comfortable running at race pace, so understanding how your body feels at different paces is equally important as training.
Do hill runs
There are a number of improvements that both types of runners can make to improve their leg speed, as well. For instance, hill repeats should be a staple in every runner’s workout regimen, as they improve both strength and speed. The runner who lacks endurance will find the muscle-searing workout to be a good mimic for the way legs feel late in the race, while the runner who lacks speed will benefit from the anaerobic aspect of hill running.
Considerations such as nutrition and hydration during the race are important also. No matter how fit a person is, taking in the improper amounts of electrolytes and carbohydrates can slow down any runner at the half or full marathon distance. Ultimately, there are many ways to improve speed in long distances, and the key is determining each individual’s strengths while improving upon weaknesses.